Thursday, June 22, 2017

Trains Settle the West

The theme of the 2017 Willa Cather Conference, held recently in Red Cloud, Nebraska, was "Picturing the American West, The Railroad and Popular Imagination."  Linked with the subject of railroads were the Opera Houses that were built in prairie towns served by railroad lines.  Not only did visitors coming to see performances in the Opera Houses sometimes arrive by train, more importantly, the trains allowed performers to travel from town to town, easily transporting their costumes and scenery. 

The image at left is from the County Capital in St. John to which Isaac Werner subscribed.  You will notice that the advertisement is dated June 4, 1890, but the railroad had arrived in St. John earlier than that date.

Sharing his stories about abandoned rail lines was James Reisdorff, who spoke to us from the Burlington Depot on the southern edge of Red Cloud.  His program was titled "Pulling Up Stakes:  When Trains Leave Town," and he shared the impact on towns that lose their railroads.  He also described how others like himself go in search of abandoned sites, some still having evidence of the old rails while others are discernible only from the elevated grade.

James Reisdorff at the Red Cloud Depot

The last morning of the conference a panel of Dr. Ann Tschetter, Dr. Elissa Sartwell, city planner and author Ann Satterthwaite, and Dr. Mark Facknitz discussed 'Railroads:  Myth & Metaphor.'  Dr. Sartwell addressed the tragic mistreatment of Chinese workers laying the transcontinental lines, using references from plays performed in the Opera Houses and cartoons belittling the Chinese to illustrate the era.  Particularly illuminating was the work of Dr. Facknitz, pointing out the significance of the railroad in Cather's writings.  I do hope their papers are published so that I can study them further.

Dining one evening at the Red Cloud Depot
A special treat was the performance of The Red Cloud Cannonball, a vaudeville-inspired performance of classic railroad tunes and humor.  Seated in the Red Cloud Opera House Auditorium, we felt as if we were experiencing exactly the sort of show Willa Cather might have seen.

For Isaac Werner and his contemporaries in Kansas, the railroads represented a love-hate relationship.  On the one hand, populists blamed the railroads for the unfair shipping costs charged struggling farmers to ship produce to the East, compounded by the distrust and resentment felt for the wealthy and powerful exerting unfair political influence concerning railroad regulation.  On the other hand, they sought railroad lines near their communities for transportation and shipping, and they desired the prestige of being a local director for the advancing railroads.  Isaac wrote in his journal about the stimulus to growth of the small prairie towns when the railroad arrived. 

I will never again take for granted the role of the railroad when I read a Willa Cather novel or short story, and I will reflect more closely on the role of the railroad in my manuscript about Isaac and the Populist Movement.   

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Preserving the Old with Something New

Dedication speakers and honorees with Rev. Charles Peek
Laura Bush delivering keynote
In 1932 a young teacher arrived in Webster County and was introduced to the writing of a former resident,  Willa Cather.  Cather could not have inspired a more devoted fan!  That young teacher was Mildred Bennett, and she is considered the founder of the Willa Cather Foundation, although it should be recognized that every leader must have those who share her vision and follow her.  When Mildred Bennett died, her vision was well established, but equally important, others have carried on the dreams she imagined, which include championing the arts and humanities.

Bennett's gift for dreaming big must have inspired the Foundation Board when they undertook the restoration of the Moon Block, a 2-story collection of commercial buildings stretching north from the beautiful Opera House all the way to the end of the block.  In 2015 my husband and I attended the ground breaking ceremony for the project and toured the interior.  Oh, my!  It took real vision to imagine that the neglected building could ever become the structure that was planned.

Ribbon Cutting at Cather Foundation Dedication
Yet, it has.  Because Mildred Bennett was a teacher who came to love the writings of Willa Cather and who asked, "What better way would there be for us to understand each other than through the fields of humanities and the arts?" who better to deliver the keynote address at the dedication of the National Willa Cather Center than a former teacher and librarian who as our nation's first lady stressed the importance of reading, and who just happens to be a great Willa Cather fan herself.  Fortunately, just such a person exists and agreed to speak at the Dedication!   On June 3, 2017, former First Lady Laura Bush presented the Dedication Address and joined other key individuals in cutting the ribbon opening the Willa Cather Foundation expansion into the Moon Block.

The Foundation carries on the mission envisioned by Mildred Bennett, not only preserving structures identifiable as the models for Cather's novels and short stories so fans from around the world can literally step back in time to experience sites described in her work, but also welcoming researchers to the ever-growing archives, hosting plays and lectures and other performances in the Opera House, providing writing seminars, hosting working retreats for visiting artists, and awarding scholarships to young scholars.  The back-stage facilities had been inadequate for performances in the Opera House, and some of the Moon Block space has remedied that.  The archives available to researchers, both in person and to fulfill requests sent from distant places, make preservation and access possible.  The hosting of events, the office space, the display of objects and information are now adequate to the Foundation's mission.

At street level, the renovations have created beautiful commercial spaces, which will be leased to business tenants.  In that way, the Moon Block renovation not only serves the Cather mission but also serves the entire community commercially.

I hope my blog posts over the years have made some of you curious to visit Red Cloud, and to hike the 612-acre native prairie just south of town.  To learn more details, visit the Foundation website at   Remember, you may click on the images to enlarge them. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Home on the Range at the Orpheum

Orpheum Theater in Wichita, KS
A recent blog shared Oscar Wilde's visit in 1882 to theaters in Kansas.  This week I am going to share a visit to another one of the great old theaters in Kansas to attend a showing of Home on the Range.

First, a little about the theater.  The Orpheum Theater opened September 4, 1922 and was designed by architect John Eberson to create the impression of a Spanish garden, with sidewalls depicting mock tile roofs, window grills, and wooden lattice arches across the ceiling.  When it closed in 1976, its appearance and the standard of its entertainment had deteriorated significantly.  For nearly two decades the theater remained dark, but today it is Wichita's Non-Profit center for the performing arts, concerts, films, and more.  It was decided to open the theater and complete renovations as money was available, most of which has come from private grants and individual donations.  The Orpheum is like a grand old lady with a few runs in her stockings, her hat slightly askew, and rouge that can't conceal the wrinkles, but the elegance underneath all of that remains.  

Our evening at the Orpheum began with meeting the cast of Home on the Range in the lobby before viewing the movie, after which the cast assembled on the stage to speak about their experiences making the movie, why they were drawn to the project, and their careers in general.  Starting at the left is Michael Martin Murphey, who not only played Judge John Harlan in the movie but was an early supporter of the project and of the restoration of the Home on the Range cabin.  Next is Darby Hinton, an actor from early childhood who portrayed the bartender in San Antonio, Albert Fraidlich.  Well known from playing Newly in TV's Gunsmoke, and a highly collected artist, Buck Taylor is seated in the center of this group and portrayed Trube Reese in the movie.  Next is Rance Howard, a life-long actor who portrayed Cal Harlan.  Rance has the further distinction of being the father of actor-director Ron Howard.  At far right is Mathew Greer, who played the old cattle trail cowboy Bill Jack Curry.  In the movie, Mathew sang the version of the song Curry remembered from hearing it on the trail. 

 Picking up from Mathew, (holding the microphone) in the next picture is Mitch Holthus, who played the announcer in the radio studio, an appropriate bit of casting, since off screen he is known as the 'Voice of the Chiefs' in Kansas City.  Mitch was raised in Smith Center and his father has been a driving force behind the saving of the Home on the Range cabin.  To his right is Mark Mannette, who played the lawyer-investigator, Samuel Moanfeldt, who determined the true origins of the song.  An actor and a professor, he bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Moanfeldt.  Seated at far right is Director, Ken Spurgeon.  

Our evening was not over, for we enjoyed the delight of front-row seats for a concert by Michael Martin Murphey.  While he may be best known for his sad ballad Wild Fire, the talents of this singer-songwriter extend well beyond that mega-hit song.  Even more to be admired by Kansans is his generosity toward the preservation of the Home on the Range cabin near Smith Center. 

We were in for an additional treat when Michael invited his son to join him on the stage.  I had never realized that the clear pitch-perfect voice that sings Western songs so beautifully is the voice of a genuine Irish tenor--although his name certainly should have been a clue!  That Irish heritage is further honored by his son's artistry on the Irish harp, and we had the opportunity to not only hear him accompany his father but also to enjoy a solo on his beautiful instrument.  Our evening at the Orpheum was definitely one to remember! 

You may click on the images to enlarge them.  

You may wish to visit to read more, and to link with sources to buy the Home on the Range CD at that site.  You may also visit to learn more about the theater and see upcoming performances appearing there.